Curtain up for classics by the coast
- Credit: Archant
Summer is here. Schools are out and everyone is heading to the coast for some much-needed sea and sunshine.
Part of the summer experience is summer theatre and no-one does it better than Jill Freud’s Suffolk Summer Theatre. Founded in 1984, this year features a mix of classic thrillers and fast and furious farces along with a wide range of children’s shows.
Despite Chinese whispers going round that a collapsed ceiling had cancelled this year’s event, the season opens, as planned, in Southwold this week with JB Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls, a dark mystery which reveals layers of family secrets set against the supposed joys of a family engagement party.
Director Richard Frost is delighted that Suffolk Summer Theatre has secured the rights for this play having been unavailable for many years because of West End and touring productions.
He said that the secret of tackling any classic play is to go back to the text and let it speak to you. “The first thing that hits you is that it is a very good play. It’s a play which is relevant to whichever generation is performing it.
“Priestley wrote the play during the immediate aftermath of the Second World War but he set it in Edwardian England but it works equally well if it is played in a timeless period known as the recent past. This allows you great freedom as a director because it makes the material relevant to everyone because it is not tied to a specific point in time.”
He said that with the current debate about the future of the welfare state raging, it made the subject matter contained with the play particularly pertinent to today’s audiences.
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“It’s about families, relationships and people being abandoned. But, what makes it fascinating as a play, is that it can be viewed on all sorts of levels and that makes it very rewarding for us working on it.
“At one level there is this exploration of how this businessman made his money and his relationship with his family and how he sees his legacy continuing. Yet, if you want to view it as a simple mystery, it still works extremely well. It’s a wonderful piece of writing.”
He said that it was no coincidence that the play was written just as the National Health Service was being forged. “It’s a very human play. Priestley had a huge social conscience. He really wanted to change things.
“Sadly, it always seems to be relevant because humanity always has these eternal problems. We are all flawed but that is what makes us interesting. That’s what the play is about.”
For the Southwold production Richard has set it at the end of the Edwardian era. “Although the play is timeless and can be set in sometime-no time, that’s not very good for some actors who like to know exactly when it is supposed to be set.
“At the start of rehearsals we had a long discussion about when it was best to be and it was decided again to follow the play and go back to the end of the Edwardian age because you get this feeling that everything is going to change.
“Although we don’t say it, but the First World War is looming on the horizon and there is an air of impending doom which informs the actions in the play. The Inspector’s last speech about there is going to be blood and anguish is absolutely relevant today.”
Peter Adshead, one of the three producers, who along with Mark Sterling and Anthony Falkingham, have taken on the day-to-day running of the company from Lady Freud, said that the season has a flavour of the dramatic running all the way through it – with the possible exception of the farce Not Now Darling.
Even the second instalment of Dick Barton Special Agent: The Secret of the Pharaoh’s Tomb, although farcical in nature, has to be played absolutely straight for the comedy to work.
Peter said: “I think we have a very good mix this season, something for everybody. There’s a lot of high quality drama, mysteries and thrillers, a couple of well-written farces, and a pair of all-time classics.”
After An Inspector Calls comes Dead Reckoning, a psychological thriller from the pen of Rising Damp writer Eric Chappell.
“I think anyone coming who thinks that it will be anything like Rising Damp is going to be in for a surprise. It’s a real edge-of-the-seat thriller and will have audiences guessing until the end. It shows the versatility of writers like Eric Chappell, who have made their names doing one thing but can actually turn their hand to any number of different genres and produce some great work.
“Then at the end of the summer we have one of my own personal favourites Sleuth which is a towering piece of writing. It is a wonderful play of suspense and features Southwold favourites Terry Molloy and Peter Hoggart.
“Terry has been with us for four years and Peter joined the company last year and was widely praised for his role as the tutor in Five Finger Exercise.
“They are two terrific actors and they will have a lot of fun getting under the skin of Milo Tindle and thriller writer Andrew Wyke in Anthony Shaffer’s dark, twisting tale of mind games. It’ll be a fantastic end to the season.”
In between the thrillers Peter and his fellow producers have scheduled some palette-cleansing fun in the form of the Ray Cooney-John Chapman farce Not Now Darling and episode 2 of Dick Barton.
“We did the first Dick Barton in 2007, my first year with the company, and now six years later we have got the second episode which takes place moments after the last instalment finished. Also we are delighted to say that another Southwold regular Penny Rawlins will be reprising her role as the outrageous Maria Heartburn.
“It’s been described not so much as a play but more of a song and dance extravaganza.”
Mark Sterling added that one of the reasons that Suffolk Summer Theatre continues to be so successful is that it conjures up a sense of community. “The company is a community in itself. There is a sense of belonging but also Suffolk Summer Theatre is part of the communities it serves. We live and work in Southwold and Aldeburgh and are a part of the town. We don’t just turn up and live in our own little world. We are part of the life of the town.”
He said that the actors, directors and backstage technicians enjoy coming back over a number of years and many of them have a long relationship with the company.
“We enjoy having a number of actors, directors and crew members who have been with us before but mixing them in with people who are new. It keeps things fresh and makes each season a little bit different.
“We also do something called through-casting which is something that very rarely happens these days.
“It’s something that used to happen all the time in the days of rep but now most theatres cast for single shows, so actors never get a chance to play different parts and stretch their acting muscles.
“What we do is audition the company at the start of the season and offer places for the people which will allow us to stage all the plays in the season. This means that each actor gets to play two or three very different parts, which for an actor is brilliant because it shows their versatility.”
It’s not only the actors who are stretched or are familiar faces. Production designer Maurice Rubens has been a key part of the success of Suffolk Summer Theatre for the past 23 years.
“Why do I keep doing it? Why do I keep coming back? Because I love it. It keeps the little grey cells functioning. I know the plays and I know the space inside out but I love collaborating with the director and making something come alive.
“There are times when we do plays that we’ve done before. After nearly 30 years you can’t help it. We’ve done Bedroom Farce twice, Salad Days twice and there is a bit of me that says: ‘If it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it’ but you don’t want to repeat yourself and you don’t know how the director is going to approach it.
“So however much I would like to try and persuade them to reuse my old set, I usually end up doing something new.
“I don’t like repeating myself but I find myself thinking: ‘Here I am, faced with an empty space. Can I fill it one more time?’
“I look for an idea that I can develop and build upon. For An Inspector Calls for example we wanted something with a timeless feel about it. It is set in Edwardian times but it is also any time. What I try and do is design a set that serves the play.
“I don’t like this tradition where the curtain opens and the set gets a round of applause. I think they’ve got it right at Covent Garden where the designer comes on at the end and is boo-ed,” he laughs.
Maurice said that he remains intensely proud of the work that Suffolk Summer Theatre produces. “The fact that it keeps going now that Jill has stepped back is a fantastic tribute to her and proof that there is still a strong demand for this type of theatre.”
Lady Freud will be appearing on stage as part of the cast of Not Now Darling and hosting a Poetry, Music and Wine evening on July 28.
Suffolk Summer Theatre opens this weekend in Southwold and runs until September 14. In Aldeburgh the season runs from July 25 to August 31. Tickets can be booked on 01502 722572 or in person from the venues from 11am.